Baltimore Ravens safety Eric Weddle talks about his beard and the attention it has gotten since he joined the Ravens. We placed his beard on other prominent people. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Trailing by two points last Sunday and with just over a minute remaining, the Jacksonville Jaguars had the ball at their 25-yard line. By the time they had broken their huddle, Ravens safety Eric Weddle had already gone over a checklist with his defensive teammates.
He reminded cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Shareece Wright of the coverage the Ravens were going to be in and went over the defensive checks. He advised linebackers C.J. Mosley and Zachary Orr to get some depth on their drops. He then rattled off some of the plays the Jaguars like to run in two-minute situations.
"We joke around and say that is 'Coach Weddle,'" Orr said. "He really is a coach on the field. He is constantly talking to all of us."
The Ravens, who face the Oakland Raiders (2-1) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, are 3-0 because they've mostly avoided key mistakes late in games, Justin Tucker has been automatic and the defense has regained its quarterback harassing and ball-hawking ways.
The team's defensive turnaround has been triggered by the thickly bearded and "weird" safety who has added much-needed steadiness to the back end while drawing comparisons to some former Ravens' defensive greats for the way he prepares and leads.
Weddle, 31, has 14 tackles, one interception and four passes defended, but his coaches and teammates say his impact is most felt in how the secondary is preparing for games and making adjustments during them to what opposing offenses are trying to do. The group, which is part of the league's No. 2-ranked pass defense, will be tested Sunday as the Raiders bring the league's No. 2 pass offense to Baltimore.
"The thing is, he's just so in tune. He's like Ray [Lewis] and those guys from that standpoint," said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees. "That's why Eric is great. He can come in on Tuesday when we go to put the game plan in, [and] he can always tell you — like if I see a formation and say, 'OK, here's what they have a tendency to do' — he already can tell you that's what they have a tendency to do. He's very, very smart and knowledgeable."
The Ravens were searching for a defensive quarterback this offseason, the type of vocal and alpha-male personality that they lost when Ed Reed departed in free agency after the Super Bowl season. Last year's starting safety tandem of Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis struggled, though they certainly weren't the only ones responsible for the Ravens surrendering a franchise-record 30 touchdown passes last year.
Team officials grew tired of watching opposing wide receivers get behind the Ravens secondary, and defensive backs looking at each other in dismay following another communication and coverage breakdown.
"Last year, it was a lot of pieces kind of thrown together," Wright said.
Weddle, who signed a four-year, $26 million deal with the Ravens in March, was the guy tasked with bringing it all together. He signed with the Ravens despite offers from several teams, including the Raiders. From the moment he arrived, Weddle says he hasn't doubted his decision after an ugly breakup with the San Diego Chargers, whom he played with for nine seasons.
"They welcomed me like I have been a Raven my whole life. It meant a lot to me. I knew what I could bring to the team, on and off the field. When I first got here, I didn't want to push anything about what I've done or who I am. I just wanted to work, build a relationship with my teammates and earn their trust," Weddle said. "I think it caught them off guard with how much I was willing to help them and teach them and give them anything I have learned over the years that has helped me get to where I'm at. Once they kind of knew it wasn't a facade or a front I was putting up, it made us even closer."
Wright played with Weddle in San Diego so he already knew what the Ravens were getting. Other Ravens' defensive backs have spoken almost reverentially of the team's new safety.
"He's definitely like a defensive coordinator back there," Smith said. "He knows all the calls obviously, all the checks, where our weak spots are. He's just good at commanding and putting people in the right place."
Lardarius Webb, who has moved from cornerback to safety this year, credits Weddle for helping him the transition. He also said Weddle has brought a focus to the secondary on the small things. "That's something we hadn't been doing," he said of the defensive backs.
The improved attention to detail and communication has resulted in fewer coverage busts and fewer wide receivers running free in the Ravens secondary. Through three weeks, the Ravens have given up only three pass plays over 20 yards, and only one of them was to a wide receiver. To put that in perspective, last year's team allowed five such plays in their Week Two 37-33 loss to the Raiders.
The Ravens also have five interceptions, one fewer than they had all last year, and Smith said the number is a result of players better recognizing what the offense is trying to do and putting themselves in better positions.
How much does that have to do with Weddle? His teammates say a lot.
Former NFL safety Adam Archuleta, who was on the broadcasting team for the Ravens' victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, cautioned that the level of competition the team has played has prevented NFL pundits from getting a true gauge of how improved the Ravens' defense is. However, he said Weddle's impact has been obvious.
"I think they are much more sound in the secondary and Eric is a part of that," Archuleta said. "You have a huge reliability factor back there and it allows Dean to do the type of things he wants to do to try and silence passing games."
Weddle uses all the resources at his disposal. He sits front and center at defensive meetings, taking meticulous notes and frequently offering his opinion. If Weddle wasn't in the middle of the Ravens' defense during training camp, he was off to the side comparing observations with a defensive assistant or even asking quarterback Joe Flacco about the looks the defense was giving the offense.
The Fontana, Calif., native is very much a free spirit who adheres to his own routine. He's quick to share a joke or a laugh, but he becomes very serious about preparing for a game.
"I like that he is kind of a wild card. He is kind of 'one of those guys,'" said Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs. "The word that comes to mind is 'Raven.' He has kind of that Raven persona. He is a little weird. In meetings, he will pull out this big brush and start brushing his beard. You have to like a guy like that who has a little bit more to him and is a little edgy. That is always good when it comes on the football team, too."
While a lot of the talk is on Weddle's intangibles, his play thus far has him situated as Pro Football Focus' highest-ranked safety. His sideline interception against the Cleveland Browns' Josh McCown helped fuel the Ravens' comeback. He also made a key breakup of a potential Jaguars' touchdown last week.
"Eric is a very smart player. He's a very experienced player, and he's a very dedicated player," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I don't want to leave out that he's a very talented player. He can make plays on the ball, he can move, and he can do all of those things just as well. He adds in every aspect. He's made us better."